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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Team USA Exhibitions Wrap Up (7.26.12)

As the official commencement of the 2012 Olympics nears, let's take a look at what Team USA Basketball 2012 has shown the world in five exhibition games.

Team USA started things off by absolutely destroying the Dominican Republic in Las Vegas. Team USA won 113-59. The Dominican Republic never stood a chance, but they did capitalize on one aspect of the game — offensive rebounds. The Dominican Republic gathered nine offensive rebounds on their way to scoring 13 second chance points. Despite playing against a smaller squad, Team USA, on numerous occasions, displayed lapses in rebounding fundamentals — namely boxing out. Sporting versatile athletes, Team USA must remember that boxing out is more effective than out jumping opponents for a rebound. Team USA obviously recognized that the Dominican Republic had no chance to win, but down the line such lapses could be haunting, especially against bigger front lines.

Overall, Team USA stifled the competition. Tyson Chandler and LeBron James completely shutdown Al Horford, a quality big man for the Atlanta Hawks and the focal point for the Dominican Republic, by forcing him into a terrible 1-12 shooting performance — good for seven points. Team USA picked up 12 steals and four blocks on their way to forcing the Dominican Republic into 27 turnovers. Team USA capitalized on the turnovers, but not how you would expect — Team USA finished with only eight points on the fast break, far shy of the 38 total points converted off of turnovers. Instead Team USA calmly ran their offense and took numerous open shots. Team USA shot 21-28 for 42 points in the paint, compared to just 16 point on 8-22 shooting for the Dominican Republic. As the Dominican Republic packed the paint defensively, Team USA let the three ball fly. Kevin Durant led the way as he shot 5-6 from deep, and the team finished 13-33. 33 attempts is a lot, but it's hard to fault Team USA's wing players for taking wide open three pointers. Falling in love with the three ball is dangerous, but I trust Coach K. to lead this squad and squelch overzealous shooting. Team USA started the game 5-5 from deep and never looked back. In fact, the ball movement for Team USA was quite impressive — 27 assists on 42 made baskets. In the end, Durant led the way with a team high 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Deron Williams led the team with 10 assists. 

With President Barack Obama in attendance at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Team USA provided a shaky performance against Brazil. Sporting NBA talent, with quality guards such as Leandro Barbosa, Alex Garcia, and Brazil's version of Steve Nash — Marcelo Huertas, along with a solid front line of Nene, Tiago Splitter, and Anderson Varejao, Brazil provided Team USA a formidable opponent. In fact, Brazil raced out to a 7-17 lead within the first six minutes of the game, and they finished the quarter ahead 17-27. Alex Garcia led the Brazilians in the first quarter with a scorching shooting performance — 12 points on 4-5 shooting, 2-2 from deep, and 2-2 from free throw line. Team USA couldn't buy a jumper in the first quarter, and it dug them into an early hole. While Brazil shot 10-16, 2-2 from deep, in the opening quarter, Team USA shot a measly 7-20, and 0-5 from deep. Many of Team USA's shots were wide open and came off of excellent ball movement. Besides James, no one shot over 33% for Team USA in the opening quarter. With the President in attendance, such a slow start was quite embarrassing. 

Team USA turned things around in the second quarter. Utilizing depth, versatility, and athleticism, Team USA increased their defensive intensity and forced Brazil to commit 12 turnovers. Brazil finished the second quarter with just five total points on 2-9 shooting. Team USA capitalized on the turnovers and turned them into 13 points. With Huertas needing a breather, Team USA punished the Brazilian backup point guard, Neto, by forcing him to commit four turnovers in the quarter. Although Team USA continued to struggle shooting in the second quarter, 8-19 and 1-7 from deep, their defensive efforts allowed them to regain the lead with three minutes remaining in the quarter, and they finished the quarter ahead 37-32. Despite playing nearly the entire second quarter, Garcia was absolutely shut down following his impressive opening performance — 0-0, 0 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Team USA looked to blow open the game, but they couldn't pull away. Team USA got off to a fast start and led by 13 points within the first four minutes, but Brazil was able to stay within striking distance to close the quarter. Team USA entered the fourth up by just eight points. 

The fourth quarter featured more of the same. Despite stretching the lead up to 12 points, and itching to increase that margin, Team USA could not blow the game open. Brazil countered with a nice run on the heels of Nene and Varejao to cut the deficit to just six points with six minutes left in the game. With the game up for grabs, James took over and scored 12 points in the final six minutes. Brazil had no answer and watched the game slip away as the Team USA won 80-69.

Overall, Brazil highlighted some Team USA weaknesses. Brazil scored 32 points in the paint on 16-25 shooting. Nene, Splitter, and Varejao combined for 26 points on 11-21 shooting, along with 25 rebounds. Their size definitely had an impact on the game, both offensively and defensively. Brazil out rebounded Team USA 38-30, further emphasizing the impact of Brazil's size. If Brazil had not committed an egregious 26 turnovers that led to 28 points for Team USA, Brazil would have been in the driver's seat — Brazil won many important categories (shooting percentage, assists, rebounds). Brazil shot 28-55 compared to Team USA's 29-71 (both teams struggled from deep, Brazil 4-15, USA 6-24). Huertas also exposed a supposed strength of Team USA — point guard play. Huertas finished the game with 11 points and 13 assists, two assists more than the entire output of Team USA. Huertas ran the show in his 30 minutes of burn, committing just 3 of his team's 26 turnovers, as he set up teammates all over the place for easy buckets. Team USA's pressure did not affect Huertas, but it did force fatigue upon him. Whenever Huertas subbed out, Brazil struggled (especially in the second quarter) — Team USA picked up 19 steals and capitalized by scoring 19 points on the fast break. 

Fortunately for Team USA, James provided a magnificent performance en route to the victory. James played nearly 33 minutes (Kobe Bryant was the next highest at 25) and led the team in points and rebounds as he dropped this line — 30 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 4 steals. James did lead the team with five turnovers, but his positives far outweighed his negatives. Durant and Chris Paul were the next highest scorers, with 11 and 10 points respectively. Paul led the team with just three assists.

Overall, the slow start and cold shooting of Team USA proved troubling. A strong second quarter (20-5 advantage) quickly turned things around, but Brazil hung around and gave Team USA a great test. Inconsistent performances from Carmelo Anthony, Bryant, and Durant nearly derailed Team USA as they combined to shoot 9-31 for 22 points. Although Team USA finished with just 11 assists, ball movement was not the problem  — converting open shots was. Such cold shooting could be problematic in the Olympics, especially because Team USA lacks a traditional offensive post player. Fortunately, Team USA was able to rely on speed and athleticism in order to get steals and score easy buckets.

Team USA's next test came against Great Britain in Manchester Arena. Following the close matchup and cold shooting against Brazil, Team USA looked to ace their test against Great Britain. However, such woes continued into this matchup. Team USA came out and fired up bricks in the first four minutes — shooting 2-9. Propelled by eight first quarter points from Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Great Britain trailed by just three points with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter.

However, the momentum immediately shifted on the heels of Anthony. Anthony finished a dunk and nailed two threes to put Team USA ahead 33-20 at the end of the first quarter. After watching Team USA go on a 14-0 run, Luol Deng, an NBA All-Star, single-handedly brought Great Britain back with 10 points in a two minute span — making the score 39-30. Despite Deng's effort, the offensive firepower of Team USA proved too much for Great Britain. Team USA went on an 8-0 run and they finished the half ahead 55-37.

With a 19 point lead, Team USA came out for the third quarter and put the game away. Williams came out and scored 14 points in the opening four minutes of the quarter — highlighted by a stretch of three consecutive three-pointers. Four minutes into the quarter, Team USA held a 28 point lead. By the time the quarter ended, Team USA led 89-55 on the heels of a 34-18 scoring advantage in the quarter.

The fourth quarter featured meaningless minutes, and provided some nice highlights, including an awkward alley oop reverse dunk thrown down by Kevin Love. Anthony Davis also got in on the action and he threw down some nice slams. Team USA finished the game off and won 118-78.

After a rocky performance against Brazil, the matchup against Great Britain highlighted Team USA's ability to absolutely catch fire and run a team out of the gym. Williams and Anthony took over for minutes at a time, and they tied for the honors of most points by dropping 19 apiece. Russell Westbrook led the team with nine assists — many leading to alley oop dunks. Andre Iguodala and James led the team with 6 rebounds each. Team USA shot 47-78 from the field and 11-24 from deep, good for 60% and 46% respectively.

Overall, Team USA's superior depth and athleticism proved too much for Great Britain to handle. Team USA forced Great Britain into 27 turnovers, and they capitalized by scoring 33 points off of those turnovers. Team USA picked up 16 steals and blocked eight shots. Utilizing pressure defense, Team USA often turned those steals and blocks into fast break points — 34 to be exact. Team USA also dominated the paint, scoring 64 points inside compared to just 18 from Great Britain. Team USA also turned in an astounding 39 assists on 47 made baskets, by far their highest amount of the exhibitions. Deng turned in a solid performance with 25 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists, but he couldn't do it alone — the depth on his national team is nowhere near the level of Team USA, whose bench scored 65 points. Team USA's slow start was troubling, especially considering the close matchup they had with Brazil, but over time they wore down Great Britain and blew the game open.

After dominating Great Britain, Team USA faced a legitimate Olympic contender, Argentina — ranked third in the world by FIBA. Playing at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Spain — the birthplace of the globalization of basketball — Team USA paid tribute to the '92 Dream Team by wearing the throwback '92 USA jerseys. Sporting five NBA players, and led by the whirly dervish Manu Ginobili, Argentina gave Team USA their toughest test yet.

Although Argentina would later turn the game into close contest, the beginning of the game hinted at a blowout. Maybe it was the OG throwbacks that turned around Team USA's early game woes. After struggling early against Brazil and Great Britain, Team USA rushed out to a 19-3 lead in the opening minutes on the heels of Durant and Bryant. Durant dropped consecutive three pointers on the opening possessions of the game. Bryant followed with a layup, a zone busting three pointer, a sweet drop off between his legs for a trailing Durant three pointer in transition, a steal and dunk in transition, and another zone busting three pointer to give Team USA a nice early cushion. Team USA shot 5-5 from deep in the first three minutes of the game. Hoping to join in on the act, Anthony hit a three with 38 seconds left, and Williams knocked down a buzzer beating three to give Team USA a 31-16 lead heading into the second quarter.

After stretching the lead to 20 midway through the second quarter, Argentina came storming back. Playing full of passion, Luis Scola turned the momentum of the game when he came to the aid of his fallen teammate after a foul by Paul. Scola immediately got into Paul's face, and shoves from both sides ensued, including Scola giving James a nice push. Scola spurred Argentina and led them on a 10-0 run. Carlos Delfino capped off the run with a three pointer, making the score 39-29 with 5:21 left in the quarter. Following many Team USA bricks, Argentina kept climbing back and cut the deficit to just five points in the final minute of the half. Fortunately for Team USA, Iguodala pulled off a sweet weak side swat in the final ten seconds, and Westbrook finished a layup in transition with just two seconds left in the half to give Team USA some momentum and a 47-40 advantage.

Team USA came out aggressive in the third quarter and immediately stretched the lead to 14 points within the first 90 seconds. Later in the quarter, Team USA went on an 8-0 run to put the lead at 20 points with 3:01 left in the third. However, Argentina once again closed well. Argentina finished the third quarter on a 12-3 run, with Delfino scoring seven of those points, and they cut their deficit to just 11 points heading into the fourth quarter.

Team USA held a double digit lead for much of the fourth quarter. James and Durant finished dunks in transition, and it looked like Team USA had finally worn down Argentina. However, Ginobili led the charge as Argentina went on a 11-0 run late in the game. Ginobili scored eight of those points, making the score 78-74 with 2:50 remaining. Throughout the run, Team USA looked out of sorts as they bobbled passes, lost control of the dribble, and missed open shots. After Ginobili capped off the run with an and-one, Argentina beamed with confidence, hope, and many fist pumps, but Durant rained on their party. Facing a 2/3 zone, Bryant fed James at the elbow, who in turned faced a double and kicked out to Durant at the wing. With two men rushing at him, Durant nailed his seventh three pointer of the game, giving Team USA a much needed bucket. Ginobili countered with a drive that led to made free throws, but Paul came right back and used a high screen from James to nail a three pointer from the wing. Paul's three pretty much sealed the deal, making the score 84-76. Argentina countered with made free throws, making the deficit just six points with 90 seconds to go, but they could not go on another run to close out the game. Team USA held on to win 86-80.

Overall, Team USA's performance highlighted extreme highs and lows. At times, Team USA couldn't miss, but at other times they struggled to buy a basket and they watched Argentina execute big runs. Fortunately Durant and Paul hit clutch shots or Team USA may have lost. Speaking of Durant, he led the way with 27 points on 10-15 shooting, including 7-11 from deep. Bryant flanked him with 18 points on 6-12 shooting, 3-7 from distance. Durant also dished out a team high six assists. Chandler pulled down a team high eight rebounds. Unfortunately, the statistics for points off turnovers, points in the paint, and fast break points are nowhere to be found.

Despite the lack of information, other points can be gleaned. It was clear that the NBA caliber talent on the Argentinian squad truly did not fear Team USA. Argentina went hard at Team USA all game long. In fact, Anthony was so upset with the rough play that he gave Scola a hard foul with the game out of reach and just 15 seconds remaining in the game. After destroying the backcourts of their previous opponents, Team USA only forced 13 turnovers, by far their lowest of the exhibition games. Team USA only picked up seven steals, although they did block a respectable five shots. Ginobili, Scola, and Delfino played well and combined for 52 points on 18-38 shooting. Lacking easy transition buckets off of steals and blocks, Team USA was forced to grind out the win. Team USA shot 29-64, and 13-34 from deep. Team USA's 34 deep attempts marked their highest total of all the exhibitions. After a hot start, Team USA fell in love with the deep ball and nearly shot their way out of the game. However, the saying goes, "You live by the three, you die by the three." Durant and Paul were able to allow Team USA to live by the three.

With Argentina out of the way, Team USA wrapped up their exhibition matches by facing off against Spain, their tough opponent from the highly competitive '08 gold medal game. Ranked second in the world by FIBA, and sporting nine quality current or former NBA players, including a formidable front line of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, Spain looked to serve as a litmus test for Team USA. Unfortunately for Spain, and in turn the competitiveness of the game, injuries took Marc Gasol and backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez out of the game. Many wanted to see how the Gasol brothers, along with Ibaka, would challenge Team USA's front line — easily Team USA's biggest weakness.

After sending mixed messages regarding how Spain would utilize key players with nagging injuries, namely Jose Calderon and Rudy Fernandez, Spain came out strong and clearly played to win the game. Playing in front of their home crowd at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Spain, Spain jumped out to an early 3-12 lead in the opening five minutes. Midway through the first quarter, Team USA's biggest nightmare became a reality — Chandler picked up his second foul, forcing him to sit on the bench. With Gasol and Ibaka still on the floor, Team USA was forced to play small ball. Anthony immediately came off the bench and knocked down consecutive three pointers, cutting the deficit to just three points and serving as a calming influence.

With the younger Gasol out, Ibaka stepped up and absolutely dominated the first quarter. Ibaka poured in 10 straight points as Spain jumped out to a 13-22 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter. With Chandler on the bench, and Team USA acting as a sieve defensively in the paint, things finally got rolling with their small ball lineup as Williams finished an and-one, Anthony hit a jumper, Williams sank a free throw, and Westbrook drilled a jumper — making the score 21-23 at the end of the first.

In the second quarter, Team USA thrived on small ball and picked up the defensive intensity. Team USA forced seven turnovers and thrived in transition. Team USA took the lead following three pointers from Anthony and James, making the score 28-26 with 7:06 remaining in the half. Anthony continued his hot shooting as he scored eight points during a Team USA 11-0 run. Anthony routinely hit pop a shot jumpers from the baseline as Ibaka and Gasol were hesitant to abandon protecting the paint. Following the big run, Team USA carried a 42-32 lead. Spain scored the final five points of the half to cut the score to 48-40.

After watching Anthony pour in 22 points in the first half, Durant figured it was his time to shine in the third quarter. Durant hit a three, finished a fast break layup, hit another three, and then threw down a dunk to make the score 60-46 with 6:29 left in the third. Following Durant's lead, Westbrook got in on the one man show. Westbrook scored seven straight points to put Team USA ahead 69-48 with 4:18 remaining in the third. Spain countered with a strong 13-5 run to close the quarter and make the score 74-61.

With Spain trailing 80-67 at the 6:50 mark, James smelled blood and took over. James poured in 12 of the next 14 points for Team USA, pushing the lead up to 20 points. With the game out of hand, Team USA coasted to a 100-78 victory.

Overall, the game turned out to be far less competitive than many probably expected. Spain came out strong and turned in a solid first quarter, but Team USA outscored Spain in each of the remaining three quarters. Team USA eventually wore down Spain and never looked back. Obviously, the presence of Marc Gasol, as well as some solid play from Rodriguez, would have impacted the game. Whatever the case, Team USA looked dominant, and a handful of guys absolutely dominated for stretches at a time. Anthony's efforts in the first half kept Team USA in the game, and Durant, Westbrook, and James made sure to close out the game. Anthony led the charge with a team high 27 points, and James flanked him with 25 and a team high seven assists. With Chandler in foul trouble and only able to play eight minutes total, Love responded with his strongest effort of the exhibitions by leading the team with 10 rebounds in his 13 minutes of burn.

With the floor spaced, Team USA shot high percentages from the field and from deep, 38-70 and 13-23 respectively. However, more guards also led to more turnovers, as Team USA committed 16 turnovers, their highest amount in the exhibitions. With Calderon running the point fairly well, Team USA also struggled to accrue easy steals from full court ball pressure. Team USA finished with 13 steals and three blocks. Despite giving up a size advantage, Team USA out rebounded Spain 37-26. Surprisingly, Team USA didn't accrue many assists, just 20 on 38 made baskets. Overall, the performance was solid. Gasol only finished with 19 points, far shy of what Spain would have needed for a victory, and Ibaka finished with just 16 points, scoring just six points after his personal 10-0 run.

With the exhibitions all wrapped up, Team USA looks primed for a solid Olympic run. Slow starts, cold shooting, and consistency have plagued the team, but at any moment Team USA can catch fire and dominate. In each game, at least one guy dominated for an extended stretch. Despite lacking size, Team USA has done a solid job in the paint. Sporting superior depth and versatility, Team USA has thrived with constant pressure on defense and drive and kick offense. No one in the world can match up with Team USA's small ball lineup, and it has led to a multitude of open three pointers and easy buckets in transition. Team USA has excelled by wearing down opponents with constant aggression. Due to shorter stretches of playing time, and boasting an exceptional bench, Team USA can play all out in limited bursts.

Overall Team USA has shot nearly 52% from the field and nearly 41% from downtown. Team USA has won the rebounding battle, averaging 39.6 per game, although narrowly — just a 2.4 rebounding advantage per game. Team USA has played some great team ball as well, averaging 24 assists per game, nearly 8 more than their opponents. Team USA has dominated the turnover margin, sporting a 9.8 advantage per game. Even more impressive, Team USA has averaged 13.4 steals per game, 9.4 more than their opponents. Lacking size, Team USA has only averaged 4.4 blocks, just 2.4 more than their opponents. Team USA's 26.6 points per victory margin is pretty impressive considering the high quality of at least three of their opponents — Brazil, Argentina, Spain.

I fully expect Team USA to win the gold, as does the rest of the world, but I must admit, a healthy Spain could be problematic — especially if Chandler gets in foul trouble again. Overall, Team USA is clearly the favorite, but they need to take care of business and display greater focus to start games. Anyone on the team can play the role of hero, but hopefully Team USA will have such comfortable leads that hero ball won't be necessary.

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